On Torturing Your Players

I haven’t GM’d a horror game for years, but when I did I was well known for torturing my players in all sorts of horrible ways. I mean horrible ways. In one notable session, I described a death scene so graphically that one of the players went outside and threw up, which made my day.

In my horror games, I used to like to enhance the game sessions in little ways. In one session, when the players were exploring a hidden temple complex in Antarctica, I turned the heating off in the house so that we were playing with puffs of breath visible above the gaming table. In another session, I made the players enact a séance entirely in the dark. The séance ended with the tormented spirit they had summoned re-enacting her death by suicide. As I described the sound of her slitting her wrists, I squirted the players with a water-pistol I’d concealed under the table. They screamed like little girls.

One of the sessions that I’m most proud of is a one-on-one I ran for a guy I didn’t even like that much. I’d done a few one-on-one sessions for the regular players of my Skeleton Crew campaign over the summer, and Russell had been bugging me to do one for him. Eventually my patience snapped and I thought “He wants a session? I’ll give him a session he’ll never forget.”

The scenario was a simple one, on the surface. An small earthquake (almost unheard of in Britain at the time) had exposed a mysterious cavern containing early Celtic remains, and the resulting archaeological dig appeared to have stirred something up. Children in the area where going missing, the scholar in charge of the dig had vanished along with a strangely carved tablet, odd things were happening to the weather, and anyone associated with the dig was being horribly murdered by something with claws, superhuman strength and a penchant for eyeballs.

I set the scene, and Russell immediately became absorbed by the mystery. As events unfolded, he became convinced that whatever was killing the archaeologists was kidnapping the children for sacrifice in order to release some dark pre-Celtic deity upon the Earth. Eventually he realised that a portentious stellar alignment was due, and that events were leading him back to the site of the dig. Climbing down into the cavern, he was attacked by a monstrous supernatural crow-thing, which he managed to outwit, and then by the missing professor, who had corralled the missing kids in a hidden cavern. He fought off the professor, fatally injuring him, and that’s when I dropped the bomb.

You have to remember here that I was young, and I really didn’t worry about things like “good taste” or “going too far”. The professor was indeed the kidnapper, and he was indeed going to sacrifice the children, but not because he wanted to release the ancient blood god slumbering beneath the buried temple. Nope, the sacrifice was required to keep the blood god asleep. The quake had uncovered the god’s tomb, and without a sacrifice the blood god would awaken and end the world. The crow creature was the god’s servant, trying to destroy those who might have the knowledge necessary to prevent it’s master rising. It had been closing in on the professor when Russell’s character had stumbled in on it. With his dying breath, the professor handed Russell’s character the knife and gasped “It’s up to you now”.

At this point I almost felt sorry for Russell, but I like to finish what I start. His face was covered in sweat, mainly because he realised that if he didn’t go through with the sacrifice I was crazy enough to end the world, despite it being the setting for a very popular long-running campaign. I would have done it too. But his character actually went through with it, despite me describing the pleas of the children. With the moon turning blood red, the wind howling and the earth shaking as something vast and dark moved beneath it, Russell’s character chased the last child up out of the dig, a bloodied dagger in his hand, face and hands smeared with crimson, ready to commit one final murder in order to save the world. The police were waiting. He’d called them to the dig site earlier on but had forgotten about it amidst the mayhem.

I thought Russell would have a heart attack. With armed police ordering him to drop the knife, a monstrous elder thing roaring in the pit behind him, his character raised the knife above the last child and brought it down, the cry of his final victim drowned out by the fusillade of shots.

Russell was pale and trembling when I showed him out of the flat that evening. And I didn’t see him for a couple of weeks after that. When I did see him again, he told me that it had been the single most intense gaming experience of his life. When I asked him if he wanted another session, he went quite pale. He later went into politics. I sometimes wonder if that was my fault?


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